Deconstruction Works: Adult Jazz unveil their unorthodox debut

After a long incubation period, pathological brainboxes Adult Jazz are finally ready to release their genre-busting, metanarrative-laden debut. We ask the four-piece to give us the gist

Feature by Jazz Monroe | 01 Aug 2014
  • Adult Jazz

Is this what change sounds like? Maybe it’s a case of selective hearing, but it feels like what passes for ‘British indie’ in 2014 is getting a little less... sweaty? Stiff? Angular? Decades-late in the mid-noughties, these were the torchbearers of monoculture and masculinity, mugging ‘indie’ for its aesthetic parts and erecting totems to their own ordinariness, before internet border-busting, the rise of dance-pop and pluralisation of taste helped flip the tables.

Adult Jazz have aspirational heritage too, but theirs are indie icons of a different stripe. Virtues coveted in this domain are gender-blending flamboyance (Wild Beasts), eccentric social pathology (Everything Everything) and solemn grandiosity (These New Puritans), qualities previously ghettoised in the ‘art-rock’ fringes – Field Music, the Wave Pictures, British Sea Power, even Clor and Broadcast. Maybe the broadening awareness of these fringes is a fuck-you to the lingering dark ages of ‘guitar music’, that tribute to the rolling tombstones that witness rock’s fortnightly resurrection yet, curiously, never a notable rebirth. In any case there’s an eccentricity creeping into indie, and its latest proponent is Adult Jazz.

Formed at Leeds Uni, the Guildford-based four-piece are modern indie deconstructivists. They’re rampant self-skeptics with a penchant for worship music. Debut album Gist Is, set for release on their own label Spare Thought, reimagines the music of folk pioneers like Van Morrison and Joanna Newsom with the worldly pizzazz (but none of the wackiness) of Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective. The record confronts themes of religion, legalism and systematic oppression, influenced in part by singer Harry Burgess’s ejection from his community church after coming out. It’s hard not to see such trials of self-reckoning as significant: Adult Jazz are that rare indie band whose articulacy matches their anthemics, and Gist Is – one of the year’s most exciting debuts – is all the tastier for it.

"I like the idea of longing to be moved, and when it happens, asking ‘Was that just a chord or was it something more?” – Harry Burgess

It’s a bright and early Monday morning when we catch the four-piece zipping down through Scotland and back home. They've just played certifiable dreamfest Howlin’ Fling [reviewed here], the insular community event sequestered away on the Isle of Eigg. It’s something of a boon for the band, who caught wind of the festival (run by Johnny Lynch, AKA the Pictish Trail) via a short film by British Sea Power and swiftly fell in love, before management pulled some strings and secured their billing. “There's a sense of small community, an eco-project vibe,” reflects singer Harry Burgess. “We had some technical issues, but we were happy to endure a slap in the face to be there.”

If Howlin’ Fling has the air of a sanctified musical haven, Adult Jazz are perfect picks. In an age when, to many, religion feels slightly archaic next to the altars of celebrity, political ideology, ad culture’s physical and lifestyle ideals and, most pertinently, music, there are few strands of alternative rock that really address whether anyone is gatekeeping our faith. When we talk of musical spirit, Adult Jazz ask, what spirit exactly are we invoking? Never ones to shy from a challenge, the young band occupy these territories with pitchforks and party hats.

A large part of Adult Jazz’s appeal is their ability to invite scrutiny. Their songs have a levity about them. Throughout the nine tracks and 50 minutes of Gist Is, cogs whirr into overdrive to stimulate your pleasure centres. Songs of restraint and puritanism jerk and tease before erupting into slurred ululation. It’s in these euphoric passages, songs like Springful and Bonedigger, that you begin to grasp the folky soul beneath Adult Jazz’s postmodern critique.

The band insist that the album’s major-key aspirations are not piss-takes of calculated folk so much as comments on its psychological “interestingness.” Still, certain signs might be read differently – the mewling, bluesy anti-anthem titled Idiot Mantra, for one, or album highlight Spook, which raises an eyebrow at its protagonist’s journey through “the suburbs.” “I write these songs to trigger,” Harry sings on the track, “And I do not take it lightly.” What exactly is their position on the trad-folk landscape?

“I always end up mentioning Arcade Fire when I talk about this sort of stuff,” Harry begins, laughing. “I'm always a bit conscious about using collective phrases. So many choruses these days are like, ‘We all do this, we all do that.’” “We were interested in the composition and structure of modern worship music,” elaborates drummer and trombonist Tim Slater. “We want to explore the legitimacy of emotional responses to music that’s designed to get those responses. Spook is a slightly sarcastic look at that intention.”

“But honestly,” Harry quickly adds, “it started because we wrote a big buildy song and we liked it. But the context became about what was happening in the song. We decided it would be set in a church. The guy's done the reflective middle, the joyous explosion. He’s doing the slow build to hopefully the final release – trying to speak in tongues, and have that special spiritual moment – and he's really reaching for that, because he's singing all that eh-neh-neh-neh kind of stuff. And I think he manages it at the end.”

The origins of Adult Jazz stretch back to childhood, when Harry, who also plays guitar, keyboard and sampler, first met Tim Slater at school. At 15 they rekindled that friendship, sacking off their “slightly dull indie bands” to make a new line-up with Steve Wells, who plays bass, guitar and drums. It wasn’t until their teething phase passed that Tom Howe, a production whizz with MPC credentials who they knew through a mutual friend in Fun Adults, encouraged the band to record. When songwriting intensified and the trio setup felt restrictive, Tom joined permanently.

The group existed more often in hard drives than hard reality, isolated from the fast-moving Leeds scene, of which, Tim notes, they’re “only tenuous alumni.” Instead, recording began during summer holidays at a friend’s barnhouse in the Scottish borders, where hand-built wood jacuzzis and the attendant parties eventually gave way to the serious work of song-building. After a few years’ refining, getting bored, adding sections and re-refining, they vowed to set down instruments and fine-tune the album on-screen, a long post-production process to which Tim credits the record’s intricacy and complexity.

Pathologically clever and self-justifying, the resultant record isn’t flawless – sometimes distance makes the heart grow cold, after all. But buoyed by redemptive melodies, multi-textured sound beds and feisty African rhythms, it quickly ignites a kind of intellectual euphoria, teasing difficult questions out of the listener. One way they do this is deconstruction, usually of the manufactured ecstasy of the ‘anthem’. At gut level, they hypothesise, would explicit awareness of its mechanisms – a sort of play-by-play exposé of the anthem’s journey in time, tense and key – affect our capacity to enjoy it? By the band’s advanced reckoning, this is the question that links the paradoxes of stirring folk music and religious experience, and it boils down to one question: in the postmodern era, how will we ensure that our advancing knowledge and inherent spirituality can coexist?

“I've always felt I can contain science and religious experience quite comfortably,” muses Harry. “Even if I know it's just 'cause of serotonin or dopamine, I like the idea of longing to be moved, and when it happens, asking ‘Was that just a chord or was it something more?’”

Harry’s pursuit of meaningful songcraft has passed Battles and early Animal Collective and now rests somewhere more accessible, between Wildbirds and Peacedrums and his dad’s Van Morrison LPs. Lyrically, however, his ideas manifest in multi-dimensional characters, imbued with that semi-autobiographical conflict between puritanism and perplexity. “The characters in songs like Am Gone and Springful are maligned people who try to be good,” he elaborates. “Those songs are kind of about celibacy, from a religious perspective. That’s what a lot of religions will ask of gay people, or anyone who's different in that profound, identity sense. There's a lot of chat these days about how loads of religious figures say, ‘God made you gay and that's cool,’ but at any juncture where that person enacts ‘gayness’, they are moving away from an ideal. For gay people especially, [there’s a notion] that anytime you do anything, you’d be transgressing, and that feels like a horrible bomb inside you. To acknowledge that there's contention about homosexuality is the most offensive thing in the world.”

It’s a discussion that Harry has nonetheless sought with members of his church community, whose reactions vary from “dastardly” dismissal to a massive empathy that, he feels, transcends liberalism’s often legalistic take on the subject. “It’s that idea of securing meaning from something that has been formalised, and how that’s never as good as an intuitive, twinge-based notion of truth,” he concludes of his philosophy. “Gut feelings, those kind of things. The gist, basically. Say to the kids, ‘Don't throw stones in the playground’ and the legalistic attitude can license them throwing sticks. But it should be based on the twinge, the intuitive knowledge. It wasn't about the stones.”

Gist Is is released on 4 Aug via Spare Thought. Adult Jazz play End of the Road festival on 30 Aug